WACO, Texas – Over the past year, those of us in the anti-Trump camp have churned out billions of words critiquing the president.
The point of this work is to expose the harm President Donald Trump is doing, weaken his support and prevent him from doing worse. And by that standard, the anti-Trump movement is a failure.
We have persuaded no one. Trump’s approval rating is around 40 percent, which is basically unchanged from where it’s been all along.
We have not hindered him. Trump has more power than he did a year ago, not less. With more mainstream figures like H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn gone, the administration is growing more nationalist, not less.
We have not dislodged him. For all the hype, the Mueller investigation looks less and less likely to fundamentally alter the course of the administration.
We have not contained him. Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is complete. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans now have a positive impression of the man. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 59 percent of Republicans consider themselves more a supporter of Trump than of the Republican Party.
On trade, immigration, entitlement reform, spending, foreign policy, race relations and personal morality, this is Trump’s party, not Reagan’s or anyone else’s.
A lot of us never-Trumpers assumed momentum would be on our side as his scandals and incompetences mounted. It hasn’t turned out that way. I almost never meet a Trump supporter who has become disillusioned. I often meet Republicans who were once ambivalent but who have now joined the Trump train.
National Review was once staunchly anti-Trump, and many of its writers remain so, but, tellingly, NR editor Rich Lowry just had a column in Politico called “The Never Trump Delusion” arguing that Trump is not that big a departure from the Republican mainstream.
The surest evidence of Trump’s dominance is on the campaign trail. As The Times’ Jonathan Martin reported, many Republicans, including Ted Cruz, are making the argument that if Democrats take over Congress, they will impeach the president. In other words, far from ignoring Trump, these Republicans are making defending him the center of their campaigns.
In red states, as Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal noted, Republicans compete to see who is the most Trumpish. In Indiana, the men vying for the Republican Senate nomination underline their support for the trade war. One candidate has a slogan, “Defeat the elite,” while another promises to “Make America Great.”
Even in blue states, Republicans refuse to criticize the man. In districts across Southern California, 11 Republican House candidates were asked about their positions on various issues. Seven of them refused to answer any question concerning Trump, and the four who did were strongly supportive.
Democratic anti-Trumpers had better hope they win in 2020, because their attacks have only served to entrench Trumpism on the right. Meanwhile, if Republican never-Trumpers were an army, they’d be freezing their buns off in Valley Forge tweeting over and over again that these are the times that try men’s souls.
Why has Trump dominated? Part of it is tribalism. In any tribal war people tend to bury individual concerns and rally to their leader and the party line. As late as 2015, Republican voters overwhelmingly supported free trade. Now they overwhelmingly oppose it. The shift didn’t happen because of some mass reappraisal of the evidence; it’s just that tribal orthodoxy shifted and everyone followed.
Part of the problem is that anti-Trumpism has a tendency to be insufferably condescending. For example, my colleague Thomas B. Edsall beautifully summarized the recent academic analyses of what personality traits supposedly determine Trump support.
Trump opponents, the academics say, are open-minded and value independence and novelty. Trump supporters, they continue, are closed-minded, change-averse and desperate for security.
This analysis strikes me as psychologically wrong (every human being requires both a secure base and an open field — we can’t be divided into opposing camps), journalistically wrong (Trump supporters voted for the man precisely because they wanted transformational change) and an epic attempt to offend 40 percent of our fellow citizens by reducing them to psychological inferiors.
The main reason Trump won the presidency is that tens of millions of Americans rightly feel that their local economies are under attack, their communities are dissolving and their religious liberties are under threat. Trump understood the problems of large parts of America better than anyone else. He has been able to strengthen his grip on power over the past year because he has governed as he campaigned.
Until somebody comes up with a better defense strategy, Trump and Trumpism will dominate. Voters are willing to put up with a lot of nonsense for a president they think is basically on their side.
Just after the election, Luigi Zingales wrote a Times op-ed on how not to fight Trump, based on the Italian experience fighting Silvio Berlusconi. Don’t focus on personality or the man, Zingales advised. That will just make Trump the people’s hero against the Washington caste. Focus instead on the social problems that gave rise to Trumpism.
That is the advice we anti-Trumpers still need to learn.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service